Scripture: Gen 4; 22; Isa 1:11-17; Hos 6:6; Amos 5:21-24; Mic 6:6-8; Heb 8-10
Leading Question: Why does the practice of bloody sacrifice stir up such strong passions today?
The first life-taking sacrifice in Scripture isn’t even mentioned as a sacrifice, but it is implied. After Adam and Eve sinned, the Lord provided animal skins to clothe them (Gen. 3:21). Is it possible that God intended or hoped that this first sacrifice could be the last? Scripture doesn’t say. But Scripture does have a lot to say about sacrifice. That’s the topic we will explore in this lesson.
1. Cain’s Sacrifice. Genesis 4 tells about the tragic results of Cain’s rejected sacrifice. He ended up murdering his brother and was banished from home. Why doesn’t Scripture tell us more clearly the nature of his crime? Traditionally Christians have argued that he brought the wrong sacrifice. But that’s not at all clear from Scripture. In the end, it was his anger that got him into trouble, not the sacrifice itself. See “The “Anger of Cain” at the end of this lesson.
2. The Sacrifice of Isaac. Some easily overlooked aspects of the Genesis narrative reveal crucial truths about the nature of sacrifice in the Bible. Why should innocent Isaac die at God’s command? Genesis 18 records the conversation between an indignant Abraham and the Judge of all the earth over the fate of Sodom. “You can’t destroy the innocent and the wicked together,” argued Abraham. “You are the Judge of all the earth you can’t do that. You have to do what is right” (see Gen. 18:23-25).
In Genesis 18 Abraham fiercely defended the rights of the innocent and he did it to defend God’s reputation. But in Genesis 22, without so much as a whimper of protest, Abraham was willing to head to Moriah at God’s command to sacrifice the innocent child of promise. He seemed unconcerned either for the innocent Isaac or for God’s reputation.
All that suggests an important clue for our understanding the idea of sacrifice in Scripture, for sin had so distorted the human understanding of authority, that child sacrifice had come to be seen as the ultimate gift to demanding and bloodthirsty gods. Exodus 13:11-16 reveals that at the time of the Exodus from Egypt, every firstborn son among the human population had to be killed or redeemed. The same applied to animals. Child sacrifice had indeed come to be seen as the crowning act of worship.
God recognized that deeply-rooted conviction and used it to point Abraham and all God’s people to a better and clearer truth about God: Abraham could not sacrifice his son; God must provide the sacrifice. And He did. The ram caught in the thicket (Gen. 22:13) gave his life, a divinely-provided substitute for the first-born Isaac, a first step toward the greater truth that God himself would provide the sacrifice for humankind.
3. The Prophets Rail Against Sacrifice. In the famous story of Saul and the Amalekites, Samuel tells Saul that it is better to obey than to offer sacrifices (1 Sam. 15:22). But that is a mere ripple compared to the torrent of anger from Isaiah and Amos. Here is Isa 1:1-17 (NRSV):
11 What to me is the multitude of your sacrifices? says the Lord; I have had enough of burnt offerings of rams and the fat of fed beasts; I do not delight in the blood of bulls, or of lambs, or of goats. 12 When you come to appear before me, who asked this from your hand? Trample my courts no more; 13 bringing offerings is futile; incense is an abomination to me. New moon and sabbath and calling of convocation— I cannot endure solemn assemblies with iniquity. 14 Your new moons and your appointed festivals my soul hates; they have become a burden to me, I am weary of bearing them. 15 When you stretch out your hands, I will hide my eyes from you; even though you make many prayers, I will not listen; your hands are full of blood. 16 Wash yourselves; make yourselves clean; remove the evil of your doings from before my eyes; cease to do evil, 17 learn to do good; seek justice, rescue the oppressed, defend the orphan, plead for the widow.
And here is Amos 5:21-24 (NRSV)
21 I hate, I despise your festivals, and I take no delight in your solemn assemblies. 22 Even though you offer me your burnt offerings and grain offerings, I will not accept them; and the offerings of well-being of your fatted animals I will not look upon. 23 Take away from me the noise of your songs; I will not listen to the melody of your harps. 24 But let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.
In short, when ritual trumped righteousness and masked wicked behavior in the name of religion (cf. Jeremiah 7), the prophets erupted in hot fury. In the case of Jeremiah, the anger accompanied the announcement that the temple itself would be destroyed and the people would be sent into exile. Then there would be no ritual at all.
4. Christ’s Once-for-all Sacrifice. Hebrews 8 - 10 speaks with greatest clarity about the final deliverance from sin through the sacrifice of Christ and it is against the backdrop of the inadequacy of the God-given sacrificial system. Hebrew 10:8-10 is to the point as it celebrates the once-for-all sacrifice of Christ:
5. Our Sacrifice in Response to the Sacrifice of Christ. In the light of what God has done in Jesus Christ, Paul calls us to give ourselves as a “living sacrifice” to God. Here are his words in Romans 12:1-2 (NRSV):
From gratitude we are to live for God. And the Lord’s supper is a perpetual reminder of what the sacrifice of Christ has meant to the human family and to the entire universe.
“The Anger of Cain”
And the LORD said, “What have you done? The voice of your brother’s blood is crying to me from the ground.” (Genesis 4:10, RSV)
Strange how the violent, the angry, and the sinful grab more than their share of the headlines, even in Scripture. Abel brings the right sacrifice. Enoch walks with God. But we hear not a word from them. Scripture slips them quickly onto the stage of history and then off again. We catch only a glimpse and then they are gone.
But angry Cain earns almost a whole chapter and speaks more than once. Why?
So we can learn about anger. How it snatches away those we love. How it destroys in a moment the work of a lifetime. How it pushes beyond our reach all that is precious and dear. Cain can tell us about all that. That’s why he has a whole chapter.
Genesis 4 opens on a joyful note: “I've gotten a man with the help of the LORD,” exclaims Eve at Cain’s birth. And again she bore Abel his brother. The stage is set. The drama begins.
Abel is a shepherd. But Cain has given his life to “serving” the earth. Yes, given our current interests in ecology, it is noteworthy that the Hebrew word translated as “tiller” (of the ground), is the word for serving. It even carries overtones of worship. Cain is devoted to the earth. He inherited the original charge to Adam “to serve the earth” (Gen. 2:5, 15), and dedicated his life to its fulfillment.
Offering time. Both brothers bring of their best, Cain from the fruit of the ground, Abel from the flock. The word used for both offerings is a general one, suggesting a gift of gratitude or thanksgiving, a sacrifice of homage or of allegiance.
But something went wrong. Horribly wrong. The LORD accepted Abel’s offering but not Cain’s. We can only guess the reason; Scripture does not tell us why.
Traditionally, Christians have said that Cain should have brought an animal. Possibly, especially for a sin offering. But even in the Levitical laws, an offering of first fruits clearly is part of God’s plan. A full chapter (Leviticus 2) deals exclusively with that kind of offering.
Yes, the flaw could have been in the offering or in the manner in which it was presented. But Cain’s reaction suggests that the problem lay deep in his own heart. Hebrews 11:4 says that Abel’s offering was only acceptable “by faith.” Apparently Cain lacked such faith.
The attitude of the worshiper is what counts before God. That means unanswered prayers: “Even though you make many prayers, I will not listen” (Is. 1:15, RSV).
And that is what happened to Cain and his offering: The LORD did not listen. But He was watching. And when Cain’s anger boiled over, the LORD had words with him. Scripture does not record Cain’s response. But his anger is worth pondering.
Somewhere in the depths of Cain’s soul, a hidden fury was smoldering, a deep anger against God and mankind. A gift rejected, especially when presented in adoration to One greatly loved, would be a crushing experience, to be sure. But anger? Would not genuine love search the heart in sorrow and humility and put things right? In one sense, it is more blessed to give than to receive, but surely a “successful” gift, in the first instance, is one that brings joy to the recipient.
Cain killed his brother. The blood seeped into the very ground which Cain had been called to serve.
“Where is your brother?” called God.
“I don’t know. Am I my brother’s keeper?”
Then Cain’s beloved earth turned against him in court. “Your brother’s blood is crying out to me from the ground,” said God. “The ground has opened up its mouth to receive your brother’s blood.”
“You can no longer serve the ground, Cain. You are cursed from it. From this day forward it will be forbidden to you. You will be a wanderer and a fugitive.”
Cain’s anger melted into fear. The LORD graciously granted him a mark of protection so that he would not be a hunted man. Yes, the LORD cares deeply even for murderers. And why shouldn’t He? Cain already had paid a terrible price for his sin. His outburst had cost him his brother; then his parents and his beloved earth were wrenched from him as well. Cain could use a touch of God’s grace.
Looking back on Cain’s anger, we ask: Was there a cure?
Scripture tells us nothing about the reasons for Cain’s anger. That is just as well. For if we decide our anger is not his anger we could miss the point, a point we need to hear: the cure for Cain’s anger, for your anger, for mine.
Jesus told us to love our enemies (Matt. 5:44). We might think that the enemy is the one who benefits – and there would have been advantages for Abel, to be sure. But think of what it would have meant for Cain.
How does it happen? We all know how impossible it is simply to turn off the anger and turn on love. It doesn’t work. But there is something that does: giving our anger to the Lord. We can even tell Him that we sometimes “enjoy” our anger, but that now we are asking Him to take it away and to give us the gift of love and compassion.
It may not happen immediately. We may often fall short of the mark. But sensing our need, we can pray the prayer of that desperate father who was longing for the healing of his son: “Lord I believe; help my unbelief!” (Mark 9:24).
Can you imagine what could have happened if Cain had prayed that prayer?